Media headlines have largely portrayed Toms River as a charged battleground between long-time residents and the growing influx of buyers from the Orthodox community. Yet, those who have actually moved to the town or dealt directly with buyers say that their experiences have been overwhelmingly positive, discounting ugly reporting to story-hungry reporters and “a few bad apples,” in what they see as a largely welcoming town.
When over two feet of snow covered much of the northeast this past January, Shia Meyer, who had moved to Toms River a few months earlier, looked out his window to see one of his neighbors plowing out several houses on the block. When he reached his driveway, Mr. Meyer thanked the volunteer plower, saying that his goodwill was especially appreciated in light of the fact that his daughter, who was staying at their home, was expecting a child imminently.
“He has his own plow and always does this to help out people on the block, but once he heard about my daughter, he came back every three or four hours to keep the way clear,” said Meyer. “There are people who want to portray the entire Toms River as being an anti-Jewish and anti-religious place, but it’s simply not true.”
He added that while many Toms River natives were concerned that new residents would not maintain their property to the standards of the meticulously groomed surrounding neighborhood, he and others who have moved in are “totally committed” to preserving the town’s style.
A few weeks ago, Meyer and six other residents organized a meeting with the town’s police chief and community affairs officials to help open new lines of communication between the Orthodox community and Toms River at large.
“I think as more new people move into town, it’s important that we encourage more and more dialogue,” said Toms River Police spokesman Ralph J. Stocco, who helped coordinate the meeting.
Referring to harsh statements made by some of the town’s residents regarding the influx, he responded that there is “a small percentage of folks who hijack the situation for their own agendas, but the majority of people don’t have a problem with people of any culture moving in.”
He added that “the education factor” was important in combating what he termed “fear of the unknown.”
In an early step to concentrate on this “factor,” the Toms River police department recently distributed pamphlets to its officers, familiarizing them with various details of Jewish religious observance.
An article by Bloomberg News titled “Orthodox Jews Set Sights on N.J. Town and Angry Residents Resist” and many other similar reports from an array of local and national outlets have set the scene in acrimonious terms. A statement in the Bloomberg report by Toms River’s mayor, Thomas Kelaher, referring to the influx as an “invasion,” caused a further stir in both Jewish media and the general press. “Toms River Strong,” a grassroots movement focused on discouraging residents from selling to Orthodox buyers, has been the subject of many articles.
Nevertheless, Toms River resident Yosef Roth also said that he has had no problem with his neighbors.
“We live very peacefully with one another; 90 percent have been very welcoming,” he said, blaming the public perception on “a few vocal people.”
“From our side, we are doing everything we can to be extra-good neighbors. Most of it is just common sense: Be responsible about your property, be courteous, and so on.”
In an effort to build bridges with the general community, Mr. Roth purposely hired local contractors to carry out the extensive renovations he did on his newly purchased home.
“It’s a good thing to do. It brings jobs and helps the town; it’s the kind of thing that is very much appreciated.”
Both Mayor Kelaher and many vocal residents have insisted that their opposition is not related to the Orthodox community as individuals, but to the actions of aggressive real estate agents who, they said, have been “harassing” homeowners. While several interview subjects acknowledged that some agents had indeed crossed the line, realtors who had dealt with the community had good stories to tell.
“I’ve only had positive experiences. The only negative ones I can speak about are the articles that come out and the ‘Toms River Strong’ signs that some people put up,” said Mrs. Blimi Meisels of Imperial Real Estate Agency, who has been brokering sales in Toms River for nearly two years.
Mrs. Meisels told a story that she felt illustrated the reality of how many in Toms River felt about the dark media attention.
“Someone who had contacted us to help sell their house told me that the other day News 12 had knocked on their door, asking if they wanted to be interviewed about the harassment from realtors. They just told the news people that they did not know what they were talking about, but it tells you a lot. The ones who went knocking on doors were News 12, not the real estate agents.”
Nonetheless, she did concede that some sellers had mentioned being approached by “angry” neighbors after it became known that they were contracted to sell their homes to Orthodox buyers.
Chesky Shteiner, who has also been involved in sales in Toms River with Imperial, said that the vast majority of listings come from residents in the town who contact his organization directly, without solicitation, but that even those he had contacted directly took his overtures in stride.
“We always try to be as professional as possible and most people I spoke to were very friendly. Some asked us to follow up with them, others said not to, but I can’t say that I had bad experiences,” he said.
Mr. Shteiner said that those who had bought in Toms River have had “nice” interactions with neighbors and that widely reported tensions came from the actions of “a few bad apples.” He added that all new residents who put in applications for permits to make structural changes to homes were approved by the township.
“If you lived in Toms River and did not follow the news, you would have no idea that there is anything going on. Everything has been very pleasant for us,” said Simcha Leiner, who moved in December. He attributed the wide negative reporting to “sensationalism” and disproportionate representation from “self-appointed community advocates.”
“A few houses away from me is someone with a ‘Toms River Strong’ sign, but they also have a sign against standardized testing in public schools. Some people are just like that. It doesn’t say too much about the community as a whole.”
Updated Wednesday, April 20, 2016 at 3:33 pm